21 Tips for new executives with business development responsibilities

Here's what they didn't teach you about achieving your growth goals

Congratulations! Either you got promoted or have started your own company. You’re an executive with profit and loss responsibility now, and must grow your business. You probably have some experience with business development, sales, or proposals, but being in charge of it is another matter. That’s okay, because like most executives, you’re confident you can make the stretch.

My goal in writing this is to help you avoid falling into traps that look rational, but will weaken your competitiveness. Your competitors make these mistakes all the time. You can do better.

  1. Business development is about what you close and not about how many leads you have. Closing requires understanding what it will take to win. 
  2. If you sell a commodity, the strategies and processes for winning are very different than if you sell something that is not a commodity. Likewise, government, commercial, international markets are different. The rules of thumb you hear could be completely wrong for you. Vet the relevance.
  3. For non-commodity services businesses, the best competitive advantage is an information advantage. Only bid leads where you have an information advantage. If you don’t have an information advantage, it means you are competing on price or luck. Neither is sustainable or leads to the best ROI. 
  4. For commodity services businesses, an information advantage may be the only differentiator you have. But it still might not be enough if all the customer cares about is price. But an information advantage is how you figure that out.
  5. Relationship marketing doesn’t work by getting potential customers to like you. It works by producing an information advantage. You can measure the success of your relationship marketing efforts by how much they produce an information advantage.
  6. People are not enough for successful business development. Being successful takes more than just hiring smart or charismatic people who “can sell.” Your organization needs to become more than just its people in order to win consistently over the long term. People work more effectively with the right processes and tools. Institutional knowledge should be grown and applied to constantly improving your win rate. Winning consistently is an information problem and not a “selling” problem.
  7. What it will take to win the proposal should drive what you do during the pre-RFP pursuit. Start with the end in mind. Ask “what will it take to win the proposal?” And work backwards from there. Use it to guide what you do at the beginning. If the staff involved in the pre-RFP pursuit don’t know what it will take to win the proposal, they can’t deliver it. Thus, the pre-RFP pursuit is really about discovering what it will take to win.
  8. Pay special attention to the questions the people preparing the proposal will need answered in order to write a winning proposal. Starting the proposal already having those answers is how an information advantage becomes a competitive advantage. Not having the answers leads to a watered down proposal.
  9. Tracking leads and customer contacts is not enough to end up prepared to win. Holding regular meetings about the status of leads will only result in starting the proposal unprepared. It’s not the status that matters, it’s the amount of information advantage you’ve developed. Your business development meetings should be about assessing your ability to answer key questions and not about status.
  10. Don’t debate whether a lead is a “good opportunity” or not. Debate whether you understand what it will take to win and have an information advantage. Making your meetings about what it takes to win and how to get an information advantage will set the right expectations and help train your staff.
  11. You can measure your readiness to win at RFP release by how well you can answer the questions related to what it will take to win. You can quantify your ability to answer the questions related to what it will take to win. You can build your pursuit process around that, as well as your bid decision process.
  12. Your strategic plan should tell people where to prospect for leads and which leads are acceptable. It should become a tool used in making bid decisions, and not just sit on a shelf.
  13. Make sure you understand how to build a funnel or pipeline and the math related to it. Study the relationship between leads, win rate, and revenue. This will help you set the right targets and know what to expect in the future. We have found changes in win rate to have 3-4 times the impact on revenue as do changes in lead discovery. If this is the case for you as well, you will want to invest in achieving a high win rate, as opposed to focusing on finding leads.
  14. Put the burden of proof on those who recommend bidding and not on those who recommend cancelling. No matter how hard it might be emotionally, you can improve your win rates simply by making bids easy to cancel and hard to get approval to continue. Continuing a bid should always be about whether the ROI justifies it.
  15. Always be prepared to walk away from sunk cost pursuits if you haven’t fulfilled your criteria for achieving a high probability of winning. Don’t throw good money after bad. You should build an organization that hits its numbers by achieving its win rate targets and constantly raising them, instead of one that hits its numbers by bidding in volume. Opportunistic bids can be pursued if they are paid for by sunk cost resources only if they don’t conflict with strategic pursuits. If you have resources sitting around not already pursuing strategic bids, then you may not be as strategic as you think you are.
  16. Your best chance to influence and improve the proposal occurs before it is written. If you come in late to the game and see that changes are required, that’s your failure and not the proposal team’s failure. Be a good role model if you want your staff to do their homework and not procrastinate.
  17. Be aware of the questions that your proposal team can’t answer on their own, and help them get the answers they need. If you don’t provide the answers, then they’ll hedge and water things down.
  18. Don’t allow the proposal review process to be subjective. Proposal quality should be defined in writing. Reviews should validate specific attributes or criteria. If your organization can’t articulate what those criteria should be in detail or hasn’t done so before the writing starts, then you’ve got a problem. Arguing over quality criteria will do far more to benefit your organization than arguing over whether to make a subjective change.
  19. Proposal writers and reviewers should have the same definition and criteria for proposal quality. Otherwise, neither one of them can fulfill it. This means you have to be able to spell out your quality criteria before the writing starts.    The break/fix model is wrong for proposals. Design quality in from the beginning.
  20. If you hardly ever cancel a pursuit, you’re probably doing something wrong.
  21. The best proposals are written from the customer’s perspective. They should not describe your company, they should describe why your company’s qualifications and approaches matter to the customer. You need to understand what matters to the customer in order to achieve this. It’s a great place to start when listing your quality criteria.

PS: Share this with your staff and use it to start conversations. You might say “I think this makes sense. What do we need to do to implement it?” You will be educating them, setting expectations, raising the bar, and learning yourself all at the same time.



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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